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1 Corinthians 13

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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3. The supremacy of love ch. 13

Paul now proceeded to elaborate on the fact that love surpasses the most important spiritual gifts. Some of the Corinthian Christians may not have possessed any of the gifts mentioned in the previous three lists in chapter 12, but all of them could practice love. Clearly all of them needed to practice love more fully. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is a more obvious demonstration of the Spirit’s presence in a life and His control over a life than the gifts of the Spirit.

Love is the most fundamental and prominent of these graces. The love in view is God’s love that He has placed in the believer in the indwelling Spirit that should overflow to God and others. It is the love that only the indwelling Holy Spirit can produce in a believer and manifest through a believer. Fortunately we do not have to produce it. We just need to cooperate with God by doing His will, with His help, and the Spirit will produce it.

"A Christian community can make shift somehow if the ’gifts’ of chapter 12 be lacking: it will die if love is absent. The most lavish exercise of spiritual gifts cannot compensate for lack of love." [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 124.]

This chapter is something of a digression in Paul’s argument concerning keeping the gift of tongues in its proper perspective (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1), but it strengthens his argument considerably. As we have seen throughout this epistle, the Corinthians needed to love one another and others. It is not coincidental that the great chapter on love in the Bible appears in a letter to this unloving church.

Verse 1

Probably Paul began with tongues because of the Corinthians’ fascination with this gift (cf. ch. 14). That is where the problem lay. He also built to a climax in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 moving from the less to the more difficult actions. Evidently Paul used the first person because the Corinthians believed that they did speak with the tongues of men and of angels (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:14-15).

Speaking with the tongues of men and angels does not refer to simple eloquence, as the context makes clear (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 1 Corinthians 12:30). The tongues of men probably refer to languages humans speak. The tongues of angels probably refer to the more exalted and expressive language with which angels communicate with one another. They may refer to languages unknown to humans, namely, ecstatic utterance. However throughout this whole discussion of the gift of tongues there is no evidence that Paul regarded tongues as anything but languages. Throughout the whole New Testament, "tongues" means languages. [Note: See Lowery, "1 Corinthians," pp. 537-38.]

Of course humans do not know the language of the angels, but it is an exalted language because angels are superior beings. The Corinthians evidently believed that they could speak in angelic languages. Some writers have concluded that "tongues of angels" is part of the hyperbole that appears in 1 Corinthians 13:2. [Note: E.g., ibid., p. 535; Keener, p. 108.] That is, there is really no such thing as angelic tongues; the phrase simple depicts exalted speech. Paul’s point seems to have been that even if one could speak in this exalted language and did not have love (i.e., act lovingly) his or her speech would be hollow and empty. To act lovingly, of course, means to seek actively the benefit of someone else. Gongs and cymbals were common in some of the popular pagan cults of the time. [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 125; Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 131; Robertson and Plummer, p. 289.] They made much noise but no sense. Some so-called tongues-speakers today claim that their gibberish is the language of angels, but it needs to be interpreted coherently to qualify as a language. Usually this claim is just a way to justify speaking gibberish.

Verses 1-3

The necessity of love 13:1-3

In these first three verses Paul showed that love is superior to the spiritual gifts he listed in chapter 12.

"It is hard to escape the implication that what is involved here are two opposing views as to what it means to be ’spiritual.’ For the Corinthians it meant ’tongues, wisdom, knowledge’ (and pride), but without a commensurate concern for truly Christian behavior. For Paul it meant first of all to be full of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which therefore meant to behave as those ’sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be his holy people’ (1 Corinthians 1:2), of which the ultimate expression always is to ’walk in love.’ Thus, even though these sentences reflect the immediate context, Paul’s concern is not simply with their over-enthusiasm about tongues but with the larger issue of the letter as a whole, where their view of spirituality has caused them to miss rather widely both the gospel and its ethics." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 630.]

"All four classes of gifts (xii. 28) are included here: the ecstatic in 1 Corinthians 13:1; the teaching (propheteia) and the wonder-working (pistis) gifts in 1 Corinthians 13:2; and the administrative in 1 Corinthians 13:3." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 288.]

"It has well been said that love is the ’circulatory system’ of the body of Christ." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:610.]

Verse 2

Prophecy was a higher gift than glossolalia (speaking in tongues) but was still inferior to love (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1-5). Earlier Paul wrote of the importance of understanding life from God’s perspective and grasping the truths previously not revealed but now made known by His apostles (1 Corinthians 2:6-13). Nevertheless the truth without love is like food without drink. Possession of spiritual gifts is not the sign of the Spirit, but loving behavior is.

Even faith great enough to move mountains is not as important as love (1 Corinthians 12:9; cf. Matthew 17:20; Mark 11:23; Luke 17:6). A mountain is a universal symbol of something immovable. This is hyperbole.

Verse 3

Even what passed for charity, self-sacrifice for less fortunate individuals, is not the same as real love (Gr. agape). It is inferior to it. It might profit the receiver, but it did not profit the giver.

Paul’s personal sufferings for the salvation of others were also worthless without love (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-29; 2 Corinthians 12:10). Even one’s acceptance of martyrdom might spring from love. Notwithstanding if it did not it was valueless in the sight of God and would bring no divine reward to the one who submitted to it (cf. Daniel 3:28; Romans 5:2-3; 2 Corinthians 1:14).

Paul was not setting love in contrast to gifts in this pericope. He was arguing for the necessity and supremacy of love if one is to behave as a true Christian.

"Love is the indispensable addition which alone gives worth to all other Christian gifts." [Note: Barrett, p. 303.]

"Love defines which gifts are the ’best’: those that build up the body." [Note: Keener, p. 107.]

Verse 4

Patience and kindness like love are aspects of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). The first characteristic is love’s passive response and the second its active initiative. Patience and kindness mark God, Christ, and truly Christian behavior.

Verses 4-5

Paul followed the two positive expressions of love with seven verbs that indicate how it does not behave. The first five of these marked the Corinthians, as we have seen. They were envious (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:3; 1 Corinthians 4:18), boastful (ostentatious; 1 Corinthians 3:18; 1 Corinthians 8:2; 1 Corinthians 14:37), proud (1 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 4:18-19; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 8:1), rude (1 Corinthians 7:36; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and self-seeking (1 Corinthians 10:24; 1 Corinthians 10:33). Their behavior was not loving. Love does not deal with other people in a way that injures their dignity. It does not insist on having its own way, nor does it put its own interests before the needs of others (cf. Philippians 2:4). It is not irritable or touchy, but it absorbs offenses, insults, and inconveniences for the sake of others’ welfare. It does not keep a record of offenses received to pay them back (cf. Luke 23:34; Romans 12:17-21; 2 Corinthians 5:19).

"One of the great arts in life is to learn what to forget." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 136.]

"One of the most miserable men I ever met was a professed Christian who actually kept in a notebook a list of the wrongs he felt others had committed against him. Forgiveness means that we wipe the record clean and never hold things against people (Ephesians 4:26; Ephesians 4:32)." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:611.]

In the last two characteristics Paul moved beyond what this letter reveals marked the Corinthians.

Verses 4-7

The character of love 13:4-7

The apostle next pointed out the qualities of love that make it so important. He described these in relationship to a person’s character that love rules. We see them most clearly in God and in Christ but also in the life of anyone in whose heart God’s love reigns.

"The observance of the truths of this chapter . . . would have solved their [the Corinthians’] problems." [Note: S. L. Johnson Jr., p. 1251.]

"Paul’s central section [1 Corinthians 13:4-7] uses anaphora (repetition of the first element) extensively. One of the three major types of rhetoric was epideictic (involving praise or blame), and one of the three types of epideictic rhetoric was the encomium, a praise of a person or subject. One common rhetorical exercise was an encomium on a particular virtue, as here (or Hebrews 11:3-31, also using anaphora)." [Note: Keener, p. 107.]

Verse 6

Love takes no delight in evil or the misfortunes of others, but it takes great pleasure in what is right.

"Love cannot share the glee of the successful transgressor." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 294.]

"Love absolutely rejects that most pernicious form of rejoicing over evil, gossiping about the misdeeds of others; it is not gladdened when someone else falls. Love stands on the side of the gospel and looks for mercy and justice for all, including those with whom one disagrees." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 639.]

"Christian love has no wish to veil the truth; it is brave enough to face the truth; it has nothing to conceal and so is glad when the truth prevails." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 137.]

Verse 7

Love covers unworthy things rather than bringing them to the light and magnifying them (cf. 1 Peter 4:8). It puts up with everything. It is always eager to believe the best and to "put the most favorable construction on ambiguous actions." [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 127.]

"This does not mean . . . that a Christian is to allow himself to be fooled by every rogue, or to pretend that he believes that white is black. But in doubtful cases he will prefer being too generous in his conclusions to suspecting another unjustly." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 295.]

Love is hopeful that those who have failed will not fail again rather than concluding that failure is inevitable (cf. Matthew 18:22). It does not allow itself to become overwhelmed but perseveres steadfastly through difficult trials.

Verse 8

Love never fails in the sense of falling away when the physical and temporal things on which affection rests pass away; it outlasts temporal things. Gifts of the Spirit will pass away because they are temporary provisions, but the fruit of the Spirit will abide.

Prophecies are messages from God, but when we stand before Him and hear His voice there will be no more need for prophets to relay His words to us. Likewise when we stand before God there will be no need to speak in other languages since we will all understand God when He speaks. The knowledge that is so important to us now will be irrelevant then because when we are in God’s presence we will know perfectly (1 Corinthians 13:12; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:5; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 12:8). The knowledge in view seems to be knowledge of God’s ways in the present age. As will become clearer in chapter 14, Paul’s preference regarding the gifts was prophecy, but the Corinthians favored tongues and knowledge.

The verb Paul used to describe what will happen to prophecy and knowledge is in the passive voice in Greek and means "shall be terminated" (from katargeo; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6). The verb he used to describe what will happen to tongues is in the middle voice and means "automatically cease of themselves" (from pauo). [Note: Robertson, 4:179.] The passive voice points to God terminating prophecy and knowledge when we see Him. The middle voice suggests that tongues will peter out before we see God. [Note: See Stanley D. Toussaint, "First Corinthians Thirteen and The Tongues Question," Bibliotheca Sacra 120:480 (October-December 1963):311-16.] Church history testifies that this is what happened to the gift of tongues shortly after the apostolic age. [Note: Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 1:236-37. See also George W. Dollar, "Church History and the Tongues Movement," Bibliotheca Sacra 120:480 (October-December 1963):316-21; and the series of four articles by F. David Farnell, "Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?" Bibliotheca Sacra 149:595 (July-September 1992):277-303; 596 (October-December 1992):387-410; 150:597 (January-March 1993):62-88; and 598 (April-June 1993):171-202.] Paul dropped tongues from his discussion at this point, which supports the fact that the gift of tongues would not last as long as knowledge and prophecy. He continued to speak of knowledge and prophecy in the next verses.

Verses 8-13

The permanence of love 13:8-13

Paul moved on to point out that Christian love (agape) characterizes our existence now and forever, but gifts (charismata) are only for the present. The Corinthians were apparently viewing the gifts as one evidence that they were already in the eschatological stage of their salvation.

Verse 9

In the meantime, before we see the Lord, our knowledge and prophecy are imperfect in contrast with what they will be when we see Him. Prophecy is imperfect in the sense that revelations and explanations of His mind are only partial, incomplete.

Verse 10

In the light of the context, what is perfect (Gr. teleion, mature, whole, complete) probably refers to the whole truth about God. [Note: Barrett, p. 306.] Another possibility is that it is our state when we stand in the Lord’s presence. [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 645; Lowery, "1 Corinthians," p. 536; Thomas R. Edgar, Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? pp. 333-34; Keener, p. 109.] When we reach that point in history the Lord will remove (katargeo, cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8) what is partial, the limits on our knowledge and the other limitations we suffer in our present condition. Variations on this second view are that the perfect refers to the Rapture, [Note: Toussaint, "First Corinthians . . .," pp. 312-14.] to the Lord’s return, [Note: Charles C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 1744; Robertson and Plummer, p. 297.] or to the maturing of Christ’s body through the course of the church age. [Note: Robert L. Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: An exegetical study of 1 Corinthians 12-14, pp. 106-13; idem, "’Tongues . . . Will Cease,’" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17:2 (Spring 1974):81-89; and idem, "1 Corinthians 13:11 Revisited: an Exegetical Update," Master’s Seminary Journal 4:2 (Fall 1993):187-201. See also Farnell, 150:598:191-93.]

Another view is that the perfect refers to the completion of the New Testament canon and the partial to the incomplete canon and the Corinthians’ partial knowledge. [Note: Merrill F. Unger, New Testament Teaching on Tongues, p. 95; Myron J. Houghton, "A Reexamination of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:611 (July-September 1996):344-56.] They were incomplete because God had not yet given all the prophecy He would give to complete the New Testament. However this view puts too much weight on prophecy and knowledge and not enough on our other temporary limitations, to which Paul also referred (1 Corinthians 13:12).

A third possibility is that the perfect refers to the new heavens and new earth. [Note: John F. MacArthur Jr., Charismatic Chaos, p. 231.] However the New Testament does not reveal that God will remove Christians’ limitations to any greater extent sometime after we see the Lord Jesus than He will when we see Him (cf. Romans 8:32).

Verse 11

Paul compared our present phase of maturity to childhood and that of our later phase, when we are with the Lord, to adulthood. It is characteristic of children to preoccupy themselves with things of very temporary value. Likewise the Corinthians took great interest in the things that would pass away soon, namely, knowledge, tongues, and prophecy. A sign of spiritual maturity is occupation with things of eternal value such as love. Again Paul was stressing the difference between the present and the future.

Verse 12

Another illustration of the difference between our present and future states as Christians is the mirror. In Paul’s day, craftsmen made mirrors out of metal.

". . . Corinth was famous as the producer of some of the finest bronze mirrors in antiquity." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 647-48. Cf. Robertson and Plummer, p. 298.]

Consequently the apostle’s point was not that our present perception of reality is somewhat distorted, but in the future it will be completely realistic. [Note: See Michael Fishbane, "Through the Looking Glass: Reflections on Ezekiel 43:3, Numbers 12:8 and 1 Corinthians 13:8," Hebrew Annual Review 10 (1986):63-74.] Rather it was that now we see indirectly, but then we shall see directly, face to face. Today we might say that we presently look at a photograph, but in the future we will see what the photograph pictures.

Now we know (Gr. ginosko) only partially. When the Lord has resurrected or "raptured" us and we stand in His presence, we will know fully (Gr. epignosko), as fully as God now knows us. I do not mean that we will be omniscient; we will not be. We will be fully aware. Now He knows us directly, but then we will also know Him directly.

Verse 13

"Now" resumes Paul’s original thought about the supremacy of love. It does not carry on the contrast between what is now and what will be later. In contrast to what will pass away-namely, knowledge, tongues, and prophecy-faith, hope, and love will endure (cf. Romans 5:1-5; Galatians 5:5-6; Ephesians 4:2-5; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:8; Hebrews 6:10-12; Hebrews 10:22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-8; 1 Peter 1:21-22). Faith here is not the gift of faith (1 Corinthians 13:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:9) but the trust in God that characterizes all His children.

Among the enduring virtues love is the greatest because it will only increase when we see the Lord rather than decreasing in us, as faith and hope will. In the future we will continue to trust God and hope in Him, but the reality of His presence will make it easier for us to do so then than it is now.

Apparently Paul introduced faith and hope at this point to show that love is not only superior to the gifts, but it is superior even to other great virtues. Faith and hope are gifts, and they are also Christian virtues of the same type as love. Yet love even outstrips the other major Christian virtues because it will outlast them.

"Love is a property of God himself. . . . But God does not himself trust (in the sense of placing his whole confidence in and committing himself to some other being); if he did, he would not be God. . . . If God hoped he would not be God. But if God did not love he would not be God. Love is an activity, the essential activity, of God himself, and when men love either him or their fellow-men they are doing (however imperfectly) what God does." [Note: Barrett, p. 311.]

The point of this beautiful classic exposition of love is this. We should value and give attention to the cultivation and practice of love even more than to that of the spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:31). The gifts, as important as they are, are only partial and temporary. As love is the greatest of the virtues that will endure forever, so the gift of tongues is the least of the gifts. It will last only a short time.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-corinthians-13.html. 2012.
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